A Love of Food and Writing
What fuels your writing? We've asked some Headland writers about their 'other love', ie what they love to do other than writing, and how their interests feed into their writing. First up, is Jackie Lee Morrison. Check out her fantastic piece, 'House of Dragons', in Issue 16.
In Chinese culture, food is integral to life. The biggest decisions are made around the dinner table, the spinning Lazy Susan a metronome between generations. You learn to respect your elders by watching the family dynamic of mealtimes—serve everyone before yourself, tap the table with two fingers when tea is poured for you (a gesture that mimics a bow), never take the last item on a plate, fight over who pays the bill. Every celebration is punctuated by a good meal: birthdays, weddings, even deaths. Traditional Chinese funeral meals are served backwards, starting with sweet, ending with savoury—tracing a life backwards, from death to birth. It is impossible to be Chinese and not be at least a little into food, when it is so intertwined with every aspect of our lives.
There have been two great loves in my life: food and books. Food came first—my mother tells me I was weaned off breast milk onto chicken soup, fed sip-by-sip with a Chinese soup spoon one night. It was the beginning of a life-long obsession, which later became my career. My love for books—begun with stories about witches and magical creatures—eventually became a love for writing, when my imagination continued long after the last page of the story I’d been immersed in, and my desire to create overwhelmed my desire to consume.
Really, that’s how my career as a pastry chef started. I had been trying to work as a freelance food writer in London—a career path, I believed, that combined everything I loved. In reality, I found myself increasingly disillusioned by the dining scene, London, and my own skill as a writer. I retrained as a chef, hoping to find contentment in creating dishes, rather than critiquing them. What I found was a creative outlet with boundaries, rules and routine, and suddenly I understood so much more about what made a dish—what made a chef. Suddenly, I understood so much more about creativity.
Putting writing aside, I spent a long while learning the craft of the kitchen and working my way up the ladder, then opened my own small baking business when I moved to New Zealand at the end of 2016. In truth, I believed the writer part of my life was over and that I would never write again. It seemed to me that, as you grew older, there were many points in life where you had to choose a single path, and the one that involved me telling my own stories had been left behind. Then, at the end of 2020, deeply unhappy, burnt out from operating a hospitality business in the middle of a pandemic, while doom-scrolling on Twitter and imagining the “what-if” scenarios of my life, I happened across a Tweet from a long-admired author: “Come and enrol in my class at the IIML. You still have time before the deadline.”
I spent a week talking myself out of it, convincing myself it was a bad idea. How could I think about going back to school? How would I run my business? That door was closed, why think about re-opening it now? Could I even afford it? I probably wouldn’t even get in. I tentatively talked about it with my family. They told me to go ahead and apply, what was the harm? I approached the subject with my staff members at work.
“You need a hobby,” said one, shrugging. “Think about it: what do you have in your life beyond the business? It’s one class a week—we can handle it. Go for it.”
I talked it over with my husband, convinced he would put the nail in the coffin.
“It’ll be a lot to take on, but if there’s anyone who can do it, it’s you,” he said. “You may as well apply.”
That course was a breath of fresh air. Before class each week, I started in the kitchen early in the morning, baking brownies, mixing doughs, recipe testing, printing orders for the day, answering emails, and queuing social media posts, before hurrying up the hill, often with a box of freshly baked treats for my classmates. Afterwards, I’d rush back to the café to check on my staff and take over in the kitchen for a few hours, my brain buzzing with the discussions and worldbuilding we’d been doing. In the last week before our final hand-in, I spent several nights editing until 4am in my café, then moved into the kitchen to start frying donuts, thinking about plot holes and character arcs, whilst hot oil spat and sizzled. Walking around the supermarket, completely immersed in the world of the work, I had an out-of-body moment, realising that the thing that was most important to me was something nobody around me knew or cared about. It was a giddy feeling, probably brought on by sleep deprivation, but it was also strangely grounding.
Coming back to writing at this stage in my life, and whilst wearing all the hats as a small business owner—chef, manager, PR person, accountant, delivery person—was like perfectly balancing a set of scales. The more I wrote and allowed my imagination to flow in a way that was entirely separate to the rest of my life, the more freely my creative ideas and problem-solving came at work, and the happier I was. That’s how creativity feels to me: sometimes, when everything is perfectly aligned, the words flow beautifully, dishes pop into my mind, begging to be made. When one side of my life is out of balance, I must work hard to make the scales align again. Sometimes, this means concentrating on the business and leaving the writing for a moment; sometimes vice versa. Sometimes it’s a sign that I need to step away from both, allow myself a moment to breathe, and immerse myself in other people’s books and worlds.
Naturally, food appears often in my writing. In my stories, difficult conversations happen over the dinner table, family dynamics are revealed over steaming cups of tea and dainty pastries, piping hot rice is a staple of the meal. I’m not the only writer to be obsessed with food—Sylvia Plath kept detailed diaries of the food she consumed (I highly recommend following the Twitter account @whatsylviaate), and T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ agonises over tea and toast, lamenting that, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”. It’s a sentiment that resonates with me, only for me it’s perhaps more fitting to say, “I have measured out my life with Chinese soup spoons”. Returning to writing was a path out of my depression. It turns out that writing is so much a part of me, I don’t know how I went so long without it.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned over the last year is that creativity cannot be forced, but habit creates routine, and routine creates a path forward. I’m a lot kinder to myself these days, in both my business life and my writing life. As a perfectionist, I used to believe that every element on the plate had to be just so, that every word needed to be perfect. Now I know that sometimes I have to give myself a moment, allow my brain to mull it all over and marinate in the ideas. Just as eating a great meal inspires me when creating new recipes, so reading a great book inspires my world-building, and a fantastic conversation with kindred souls fuels my fire.
My scales swing, up and down, always coming back to balance eventually. You can taste the sweet and savoury of my life, in my recipes and in my stories. At the heart of it all, I still hold a love of both food and writing: they make me the person I am, the business owner I am, and the writer I strive to be.
Photo: Ben Blake, Launch Media.